artist as brand, cartoonist, digital media, graphic novel, illustration, illustrators journal, levinland, lon levin, webisodes
As I explore my own version of a graphic novel comic or webisode I am more interested in what is transpiring in this genre. As I explore I will post more and more so that those of you who follow will become more aware of the explosion of new form novels and artwork around us all.
I shook off the shackle of my illustration style a few years ago. I had been doing children’s book illustrations and animations and after three dozen books, most of which I did not enjoy doing I started to fool around with this idea of depicting my story, my history in words and pictures. I’m not really a writer per se even though I have been published as a writer (“Treehouses” published by Globe Pequot Press in 2008) I wanted to accompany my art with words. The logical conclusion was some sort of comic, graphic novel, art mismash. After a few decades of time in the commercial art world as an art director, creative director, animator and illustrator I felt I’d earned the right to do whatever the hell I wanted to do. No rules except the ones I made for myself.
To support this notion I decided I needed to split my time between a “real” profession as my father would say and my artistic exploration. Now after a few years I work as a realtor to support my art. Hence, I am liberated from the grind of wondering how can I sell myself as an artist.
What has evolved is “The Kid From beverly Hills” which I’ve posted here and there and it has gotten favorables reviews by the few who have seen it. AS I evolve, it evolves. The journey is what makes it fun and exciting not the result. More from me later…
Here is a graphic novel list compiled by Sam Thielman of The Guardia
Ware, like Dan Clowes, Charles Burns and Lynda Barry, is drawing on a very different tradition from superhero artists and writers. It’s a kind of storytelling that evolved out of the “underground” comics movement of the 1960s and 70s, when artists like Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky, S Clay Wilson and others were trying to find ways to make dirty, weird, intensely personal work that had more in common with the iconoclastic fine art of the period than with pulp fiction – the prose genre that birthed the first superheroes. Independent comics used to be considered as disreputable as pornography (maybe more so), but now they’re rightly recognized as fertile ground for artists.
In fact, the two parts of the industry are increasingly coming together. Avatar, Image, Dark Horse, Dynamite and Boom all publish plenty of creator-owned, artist-driven books. In many cases, they’re by people who made names for themselves writing superhero comics and want to write with more freedom at a place where they own their work. The state of the industry makes for some strange bedfellows: Top Shelf publishes pensive ruminations on life and absurdity by Eddie Campbell and Jennifer Hayden, but they also publish Alan Moore’s action-packed pulp-fiction mash-up The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
For longtime comics fans like me, it’s a kick to see the form evolving in so many fascinating ways. Image in particular has landed right at the nexus of art comics and action comics and produces books driven by beautiful, often hilariously strange art (James Stokoe’s Orc Stain, Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey’s Injection) and old-fashioned high-concept sci-fi action, sometimes on the same page. The innovation is opening up the form to a whole new generation of readers.
Here are the 16 books I recommend to get you started, if you’re so inclined. They’re all in print, they’re all readily available from Powell’s or even a local independent bookstore, and you don’t have to do any preliminary reading to understand them. Happy reading. And looking. And good luck finding space for them all.
The Calculus Affair, by Hergé
All 23 Tintin albums follow the globetrotting boy reporter and his companions, chiefly his dog Snowy and his tipsy, short-tempered sailor friend Captain Haddock. But there’s a long-running debate about which is best; the settings are vastly different, ranging from China to the Moon. My vote is for 1960’s The Calculus Affair, a thrilling and lighthearted story of cold war espionage and a secret weapon in the Balkans.
Hergé’s characters have exaggerated features, but they exist in a meticulously detailed world where there are no misplaced lines or scratchy pencil-work anywhere on the page. Joost Swarte, a cartoonist and illustrator who admires Hergé, coined the term “ligne-claire” (clear-line) to describe it. The phrase didn’t just stick, it came retroactively to describe the whole coterie of cartoonists who came after Hergé, called the Brussels school.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Roz Chast is probably best known to non-comics readers for her wry and wordy New Yorker covers, and her cartoons for same. You’ve probably seen them – they’re often lists of anxieties and phobias and distractions. In her half-prose, half-comics memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Chast pitilessly itemizes in excruciating and hilarious detail exactly the share of suffering allotted to her beloved parents as they rapidly enter the last years of their lives.
Chast’s sense of humor never deserts her even when her parents’ bodies fail them, and the resulting volume, which won a National Book award, is both an ingenious depiction of a part of life most people studiously avoid thinking about, and a slow-burn dissection of Chast’s own obsessions, and her love of distraction as a momentary respite from entropy.
Ice Haven, by Daniel Clowes
Daniel Clowes has been pretty open about his love for both Nabokov and for Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons. In Ice Haven, he combines the two melancholy artists’ styles to beautiful effect.
Clowes’s formidable skill is anything but cold: the little book (only 88 pages) follows the interlocking lives of a few people in a small town and works out childhood fear, teenage ennui and grownup eccentricity. These themes play out across pages designed to look like comic strips from the local newspaper; it’s so subtle and sweet you might not even notice the kidnapping at first.
Top 10, by Alan Moore, Gene Ha and Zander Cannon
The premise of Top 10 is so fundamentally opposed to the way superhero comics work that most writers would have run from it screaming: what if everyone in town, from the hot dog guy to the mayor, was a superhero? Bursting with flashy costumes, terrific sight gags and all the strange settings you’d need to build a city for such a diverse populace, the book isn’t so much an introduction to superhero comics as it is a hilariously off-kilter sci-fi detective novel.
Top 10 is also some of the most purely fun comics storytelling available, thanks to a first-rate script by ingenious Northampton comics writer Alan Moore and art by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon. The three work together as seamlessly as a jazz trio: The story is a complex procedural involving multiple murders that follows our heroine, Robyn, as she joins the force and gets used to having a boss who’s a dog, a partner who’s a Viking and a workplace filled with drinking buddies who range from the figuratively hotheaded to the literally radioactive. Though he’s perhaps better-known for Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Moore’s unparalleled skill at making the reader look left when the plot is just about to go right might be at its very best here.
Killing and Dying, by Adrian Tomine
Adrian Tomine’s most recent collection follows six different sets of characters through six different styles of artwork so distinctive they appear to have been drawn by six different people. It’s a feat of virtuosity that could only have come from Tomine, who has been telling tender stories like these for over a decade; with its incredible stylistic diversity – always surprising, never jarring – it’s his finest hour so far.
In each story, Tomine seems to announce he’ll be telling one kind of story only to tell a completely different one in hints and suggestions. Like his friend Clowes, Tomine’s ambitions are primarily literary and comics are simply his chosen literary mode. Here, he makes a compelling case for comics as a medium for the same intricacies as contemporary fiction – and for the possibility that comics can do some things prose can’t.
Cages, by Dave McKean
Dave McKean’s sprawling, generous graphic novel about life, sex and jazz is a necessary jolt of pure, intelligent optimism among a lot of very dark work from his contemporaries. The artist is probably best known for the beautiful collage covers that became his trademark at DC Comics’ “mature readers” imprint, Vertigo, but he’s a formidable writer on his own, here drawing the parallel stories of a half-dozen people living in the same apartment building and falling in and out of love with art, life and each other.
The book is bigger than most – tall and wide, as well as almost 500 pages long – but it’s a surprisingly fast and engaging read, with McKean’s beautiful, scratchy two-color linework giving way at strategic points to breathtaking pages-long sequences of full-color collage and painting in which McKean illustrates a weird and charming cosmology of his own devising.
Hawkeye vol 1-4, by Matt Fraction and David Aja
It hasn’t been easy to find Marvel Comics stories that let the new reader in the front door, but Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye is arguably the best of the company’s recent crop of beginner-friendly comics. (Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s kid-friendly Silver Surfer is a close second.) Marvel’s books are carefully orchestrated across a universe that spans more than 50 years of material, but Hawkeye ignores most of that, to its great benefit.
The book follows the least reputable of the Avengers as he tries to keep sleazy Russian crimelords from stealing his apartment building out from under his working-class neighbors. The book’s vision of factions fighting for a piece of gentrifying Brooklyn is dead-on, and Fraction’s cast of offbeat characters could be culled from the co-op next door. Aja’s artwork is spare and clever and the pair hit a serious Lennon-McCartney groove near the end of the second arc, in a story told entirely from the perspective of a dog who listens in on scenes from previous issues with a deep understanding of human emotion but a very limited English vocabulary.
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
In Fun Home, Bechdel steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize the way her discovery of her own sexuality paralleled her discovery of her father’s secret life. The book is beautifully constructed, with her declared annoyance at her father’s fussy, baroque tastes informing her work’s own spare beauty. And for all her teenage self’s eye-rolling over her funeral home director dad’s love of artifice and adornment, Bechdel’s ability to draw her characters’ most revelatory tics and habits remains razor-keen, often painfully so, for the length of the book.
The love between a father and daughter is complex in the best possible version of the relationship, and Bechdel and her dad’s is particularly fraught, not least by the latter’s suicide. Because Fun Home is ultimately an exploration of devotion and longing, its frankness is that much rarer and more precious.
The Portable Frank, by Jim Woodring
All of Jim Woodring’s glorious Frank stories are so terribly inviting that it is difficult to pick just one. Woodring draws the wordless adventures of a bear-cat-chipmunk-type creature named Frank, whose travels take him around a surreal black-and-white world populated by adorable creatures and nightmare horrors, and nearly all those travels manage to end on an unexpectedly poignant, funny or terrifying moment. Woodring’s style is fanatically controlled – every panel looks like a woodcut – but his monsters are unspeakably inventive, like something Hieronymus Bosch would have made in pottery class.
The plots are as simple as the art is complex: Frank usually makes what seems like a reasonable decision from the his own perspective and a horribly, horribly wrong one by the standards of the broader world. (Come to think of it, that is probably the shortest possible biography of anyone alive, from a certain angle.) Fantagraphics’ collection of short Frank stories is a great sampler, like a glass of water from the Challenger Deep.
The Sandman: Endless Nights, by Neil Gaiman et al
For the better part of 20 years it was very difficult to pick a volume of The Sandman to introduce readers to its charms. Neil Gaiman doesn’t hit his stride until the second book in the 12-volume series, and the art doesn’t really take off until then, either. But who wants to begin in the middle?
The writer solved this problem by penning seven stand-alone short stories for the one-off volume Endless Nights. The result was as attractive a volume of comics as a superhero publisher (DC, in this case) has ever managed to produce. In it, readers meet the seven Endless, Gaiman’s pantheon of anthropomorphized abstractions including friendly, frank Death; moody Dream; alluring hermaphrodite Desire and his/her twin sister, Despair. Every story is illustrated by a different artist and each one is worth getting to know, particularly the great Italian artist Milo Manara and P Craig Russell, probably best known for his stylish comics adaptations of operas by Wagner and Mozart.
The fun with The Sandman – like Gaiman’s best novel American Gods, a calculated hodgepodge, if there is such a thing, of stories short and long – is often the way the author allows insight into his otherworldly central characters through the pinhole of a seemingly normal, knowable person’s perspective. Here, he’s mastered that technique. The adroit short pieces are one of the reasons the series remains so popular despite its far-flung sci-fi and fantasy conceits: it’s less a three-course meal than a box of candy you didn’t mean to eat in its entirety.
Co-Mix, by Art Spiegelman
For people needing a primer on grownup comics, the ur-text didn’t really exist until two years ago, and that’s because the evolution of high-art comic books from greasy underground innovation to literary supplement is largely the work of a single guy: Art Spiegelman.
Spiegelman is justly famous for his comics memoir Maus, about his father Vladek’s escape from Auschwitz and the relationship between Art and Vladek in the years when the book was being composed. But Spiegelman was also the editor of Raw, an anthology series that drew together the best and brightest of the underground comics world at a time when the market was sagging under the weight of too many people trying to ride the same gravy train.
As other publishers collapsed or radically shrank, Raw became the Paris Review of comics, every page risky, bizarre and invariably beautiful, with Spiegelman’s own work as the book’s anchor. Co-Mix is partly an exhibition catalogue of a Spiegelman career retrospective bearing the same name; it’s also a collection of excerpts from Raw and other ephemera, and a wholly necessary study of the form’s escape from the gutter and (in this case literally) into the museum.
Hark! A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton’s hyperliterate webcomic is on the cutting edge of any number of social realities. Her Sexy Batman strips are as clever a parody of tightly clad contemporary superheroics as anyone has written. But she’s also fascinated by the arcane, the old-fashioned and the obscure, particularly as they pertain to women through the ages. Never preachy or shrill, the strip’s meticulous consideration of history’s funniest footnotes run counter to her excellently messy artwork.
It’s often said, and correctly, how smart the comic’s writing is, but artistically Beaton has few equals and fewer competitors; she’s working in a style almost no one practices anymore, where what looks like a quick pencil rough is specific enough to convey a whole range of complex emotions. Beaton lists Ronald Searleamong her favorite artists, and it’s easy to see the great illustrator’s influence.
Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Bryan Lee O’Malley is probably best-known for his series of manga-style action comics about a slacker living in a version of Toronto that plays by the same rules as a video game, Scott Pilgrim. In Seconds, he’s in the same place – well, Canada – but his twist is more fantastical than science-fictional.
Without giving too much away, O’Malley is an accomplished chronicler of post-adolescent longing. What if we’d taken this job instead of that job? What if we’d never broken up with that guy or that girl? His heroine, immature, compelling and unhappy, gets to find out – it’s like if It’s a Wonderful Life was a fantasy manga about restaurant workers. O’Malley is that rare artist who works in confessional and speculative modes simultaneously; his world may have fantastical quirks in it, but it also has quotidian heartbreak.
The Fixer, by Joe Sacco
Nobody is doing what Joe Sacco is doing; the writer-artist has visited some of the world’s worst war zones and not merely written movingly about them but carefully drawn them, as well. The effect is transporting – Sacco drags readers into war-torn Bosnia and gives them both a sense of place and a sense of urgency, and like the best journalists, he’s got an eye for the rich, contradictory, infuriating people who can make you care about something you ought to care about.
In the title story of this astonishing collection of short nonfiction, Sacco focuses on a bored ex-mercenary with nothing to do after the end of the long and horrifically bloody war. On the one hand, it’s about wartime abstractions like reparations and displacement; on the other, it’s the incredibly urgent tale of an edgy, frightening guy who’d rather be killing people and may yet get to.
Acme Novelty Library #20, by Chris Ware
Chris Ware is intimidating. The artist’s biggest works are pointedly impossible to read from the beginning – just trying to get past the dust jacket on Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth can take days. But the final “issue” so far of Ware’s long-running Acme Novelty Library is a little hardbound graphic novel that follows one man from birth to death and many strange points in between. In just the first few pages, Ware invents new narrative tools to describe learning to recognize your own name, discovering colors, and what it feels like when you see your father hit your mother.
Eventually, the book may simply end up a footnote in Ware’s ongoing graphic novel, Rusty Brown. But at the moment, it’s the purest distillation of his ingenious use of hard lines, flat colors and an engineer’s genius for describing complexity without reducing it.
All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
You can leave most superheroes off a list of great comics at this point, but not Superman. The Man of Steel’s mark on American culture has been indelible, and it has also resisted updating – the last four Superman films have been disastrously lame.
But in All-Star, writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely strike exactly the tone that film-makers have missed: modern and clever without being snide or ironic, optimistic without naiveté, and, thanks especially to Quitely, utterly beautiful. The artist’s rendering of the Man of Steel is sneakily reverential – if the cover of the book looks like you’ve seen it somewhere before, that’s because it’s a fairly overt homage to images of Jesus at the last judgment. It’s also playful and fun, with a gorgeous sequence on the inverted-logic Bizarro World (the planet is square, of course) and the kind of lighthearted interplay with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen that aren’t usually found outside much older books.